U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton accused Maricopa County officials of failing to conduct proper contact tracing of residents infected with COVID-19.

In a letter to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Stanton wrote that the county’s top public health officials shunned models from health experts showing a far greater need for investigators than the county planned for.

The county wasted precious time during Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order and has now fallen behind while new cases in Maricopa County often eclipse more than 2,000 each day.

“Now, these same officials are scrambling — playing months’ worth of catch-up and attempting to reassure the public that things are going well, when the reality is the County’s contact tracing efforts are nowhere near following (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines,” Stanton wrote to the board.

“This situation is a disaster,” he added. “It is costing lives. It is inexcusable.”

Stanton urged the board to use more of the federal funding it received from the CARES Act to invest in contact tracing. He lamented that supervisors have only spent $15 million in CARES funds on contact tracing, while sitting on $175 million for “future” use.

The congressman also accused top officials at the Maricopa County Department of Health Services of a lack of candor when it comes to their response to the pandemic.

Stanton pointed to a press conference on April 23, when Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, the county’s medical director for disease control, outlined the process for appropriate contact training. That includes investigators reaching out to close contacts of an infected individual to warn them of their risk of exposure and what symptoms they should monitor to see if they, too, contracted the virus.

By the county’s own admission, that’s not always happening.

On Wednesday, Dr. Sunenshine told reporters that investigators “often encourage people to go back to the people who were exposed… or people they were in close contact with.” She said infected individuals can often get in touch with the people they’ve potentially exposed faster than the county can.

Rather than maintain contact with infected people and their close contacts, Stanton wrote that the county is using the Sara Alert system — an automated system — to contact them. 

“Other public health agencies have used Sara Alert to help monitor the symptoms of patients and contacts who have already spoken with a human case investigator or contact tracer,” Stanton wrote. “The County, however, is using the system in place of a contact tracer.”

Stanton wrote that the current state of contact tracing in Maricopa County is a result of health officials failing to heed warnings to ramp up those efforts when the spread of the virus was contained.

He pointed to a model by George Washington University researchers, which shows that Maricopa County needs more than 8,500 contact tracers to keep pace with the current rate of cases.

Public Health Director Marcy Flanagan said Wednesday the county is hiring over 100 new health professionals to help with contact tracing, and exceeded a goal to address 400 to 500 new cases per day in early June.

But that lags far behind the number of new cases now emerging in Maricopa County, which reported 2,705 new cases on Friday.

“The county squandered this precious time,” Stanton wrote of the stay-at-home order. “It acted slowly and only ‘started’ to ‘gear up’ in early May — and for a level of staff that was far below what experts predicted would be necessary.”

Stanton said the health department hasn’t provided him with an estimate of the level of staffing officials think they’ll need to properly conduct tracing for all those infected.

County officials did not immediately respond to specific claims in Stanton’s letter. But spokesman Fields Moseley wrote in an email the public health officials are “dealing with the disease spread in real-time,” and making decisions as their knowledge of the virus grows.

Moseley said automated calls and text messages to contact those who test positive for the coronavirus are part of CDC best practices, and will allow the public health department to reach thousands of cases more efficiently, particularly as the age of those infected skews younger.

“For the majority of cases, texting is their preferred method of communication,” he wrote.

Moseley added that not all who get tested provide adequate contact information — about 15% don’t provide any. 

Investigators have to spend time trying to find those individuals, and even then, health officials have said they’re never able to contact about 5% to 7% of individuals who test positive.